20 May 2013
Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:
Major Martin Maginnis: Gettysburg Hero and Territorial Montana Delegate
By Ken Robison
For The River Press
May 29, 2013
This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that settled in Montana. This month’s feature highlights Civil War veteran, Major Martin Maginnis who survived devastating fighting at Gettysburg to serve as Montana Territorial Delegate. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. To see previous installments from this series, visit greatfallstribune.com/civilwar.
Martin Maginnis served with distinction in war and peace. Born October 27, 1841 in western New York of Irish parents, he moved to Minnesota in 1852, attended Hamline University, and became a newspaper editor at a young age. Early in the Civil War on April 18, 1861 in response to President Lincoln’s first call for troops, Maginnis enlisted at Red Wing, Minnesota, mustered in at Fort Snelling eleven days later, and was appointed sergeant of Company F, First Minnesota Infantry Regiment. On July 21, 1861 the First Minnesota fought well despite the defeat of Union forces at the 1st Battle of Bull Run, and Maginnis was promoted 2nd Lieutenant for his gallantry. Despite a severe wound to his left shoulder at Savage Station in June 1862 during the Seven Days Battle of the Peninsula Campaign, he was assigned to command Company H and promoted to 1st Lieutenant.
Lieut. Maginnis and his First Minnesota Regiment participated in many of the Civil War’s major battles including 1st and 2nd Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg. In one of the most famous events of the Civil War, the First Minnesota rose to legendary stature conducting a charge in which 262 men went into action and just 47 came out unscathed. This famous charge resulted in the highest percentage of Union loss in any action of the war.
Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles’ Third Corps had been routed by Confederate Mississippi and Alabama brigades under Brig. Gens. William Barksdale and Cadmus M. Wilcox. The southerners, flush with victory, were pursuing the retreating men at a point where Maginnis and his little band were positioned on the approach to Cemetery Ridge.
Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, making a frantic effort to rally the Union forces, dashed up and asked, “What regiment in this?” “The First Minnesota,” was their colonel’s reply.
“Charge those lines!” ordered Hancock, pointing to the Confederates. Although outnumbered more than five to one, the First Minnesota, without hesitation, fixed bayonets and charged. The ferocity of the onslaught of this band made up for their disparity in numbers, and amazed and checked the Confederates, as their first line went down under the bayonets of the Minnesotans while the second line crumpled up from rifle fire that scorched their faces. The gallant charge was followed immediately by reserves, the Confederates broke and fled to cover, the day was saved, and Hancock and the First Minnesota had held Cemetery Ridge to be hailed as heroes. Just Lieut. Maginnis and two other officers out of twenty-four remained on their feet at the end of the battle.
In a lecture delivered later in his life, Maginnis described the actions of the First Minnesota on Cemetery Ridge on July 2nd, 1863 as they bravely conducted one of the most remarkable charges of the war:
“The morning was foggy, sultry, and murky, and spent chiefly in skirmishing and desultory cannonading. The sharp-shooters on our front contested the right to hold the farm-houses, which were alternately occupied by either side, and finally burned. About 2 P.M., Gen. Sickles made a reconnaissance which developed the presence of the enemy in light force on his front, whereupon he moved his corps to the front and occupied an intermediate ridge, the right forming along the Emmittsburg road to the peach orchard from which his left bent back to the foot of Round Top. The enemy opened batteries far to Sickles’ left. The rattling fire of the skirmishers deepened into the continuous roll of musketry as the enemy threw forward forces to dispute his advance. The artillery opened on both sides with vigor, and the engagement became general all along the front of his line. The enemy at this time were quiet on our extreme right, while in the centre the batteries alone were engaged. Two companies of the First [Minnesota] (the Red Wing Company and the Second Sharpshooters) were out on the skirmish line. Another was on provost guard, and the other eight were detached from our proper brigade position and sent down to the left to form a reserve support for a section of United States Artillery, which was posted on that part of the ridge from which Sickles had just advanced.
“Once there . . . cannon balls, shells, and bullets . . . went whistling and bursting above and around us, we beheld a grand sight. Below and before us on the plain the battle was fiercely raging. Every movement of the opposing troops were discernible, and we watched them with the anxiety of spectators so deeply interested in the result; though but little of this could be seen in the faces of our men, who, long accustomed to conceal their emotions beneath the mask of reckless indifference, were with apparent unconcern criticizing impartially the fighting of friend and foe.
“Soon the view became more obscured, for, though the sun shone brightly, the air was damp and the smoke hung heavily over the fight, sometimes in rolling, cloudy masses, and again, like a well-defined wall conforming to the lines of battle, rising high in the air. Through this could be seen the charging battalions, the darkened forms of the combatants, and the banners wildly tossing to and fro above the struggling masses, looming gigantically in the maze between us and the declining sun. Again the sulphurous pall would hide everything from view save when the flashes gleaming redly through the darkness revealed the position of the batteries, and we would intently listen, endeavoring to tell from the yelling and cheering which came up from the chaotic turmoil to which side the advantage leaned, while the rattle of small arms and the deep bass of the artillery made the music of the battle, and Round Top re-echoed the grand diapason. Then the breeze would roll up the smoky curtain, and none could repress a shout of joy to see that our men were still crowding the fight, and every heart felt the meaning of those expressive words of our national anthem, ‘Our flag is still there.’
Sickles’ corps had formed an angle with the apex pushed over the Emmittsburg road, and the enemy attacked this from both sides with extreme fury. To fill up the break in the original line of battle caused by Sickles’ advance, Caldwell’s division of the Second Army Corps was put into the gap on his left, and joined the Fifth Corps, which stretching still to the left, rested on Round Top. The Second Division of the Second Corps, resting near Cemetery Hill, was also advanced and realigned with a view to supporting the right of the Third Corps. But the active enemy threw himself on the apex of Sickles’ advanced position with such tremendous force of men that it soon became evident that here on the left, and not on the other wing, the enemy had been gathering his heaviest forces to break through. Meanwhile Lee’s entire line advanced to engage ours everywhere and prevent the changing of troops. Pushing the divisions of the Third Corps on their exposed flanks, the enemy began to crumble it up and force it back over the ground which it had won. Sickles being wounded about the time his centre broke, and the line gave way and went to our rear.
“Our troops in front gallantly endeavored to sustain themselves and check the momentum of the enemy, and with the assistance of some reserve regiments made him halt and waver. The contest was sharp and heavy, and success trembled in the balance, till still fresh battalions of the foe came down and our gallant boys gave way, carrying back their colors and slightly wounded, and rallying by squads, now and then to empty their guns once more at their pursuers; but all organized, concerted, effective action on the part of that corps was at an end. The rebel batteries poured grape and canister into the retreating groups, and, their infantry advancing with triumphant yells, showered rapid volleys of leaden hail into the broken ranks, which were reeling and staggering back, but still turned to make fight, like some feeble but spirited man beneath the blows of a young and vigorous giant. Thomas’ battery, which had necessarily been silent till these troops had cleared its front, now opened upon the rebel infantry at short range. This turned their attention to an objective point, and soon a group of crimson battle-flags were advancing through the smoke toward it, supported only as it was by eight companies of the First Minnesota—252 officers and men all told.
“Just then Hancock rode up, and, unable to conceal his agitation, asked in almost anguished tones, ‘Great God! Is this all the men we have here?’ And turned toward the right, from which was hastening Gen. Alpheus Williams’ division, but still five minutes distant, and before they reached us the foe would have the battery and gain the very heart of the position. Not a hundred yards behind us was the road, crowded with our wagons, and beyond them the hospitals and trains. If Hancock could only stop that charging mass for five minuets. A hope lit up his face, and, pointing to the smoke-covered masses of the advancing foe, he cried: ‘Col. Colvill, advance and take those colors!’
“It is an easy thing to charge when the enemy is retreating and the battle is going well, but it requires steady troops to even hold a position when the line is breaking away on every side, and it was a strange order to give a handful to charge that advancing mass that had just carried two of our best divisions off their feet. We looked at them as Nolan might have looked at the Russian cannon at Balaklava, and with the same disposition to unquestionably obey.
“‘Forward!’ shouted our gallant Colonel, and as one man the regiment arose, and, as if on review, stepped down the slope toward the enemy. Their cannon opened on us, and shell and solid shot tore through the ranks, and the more deadly Enfield rifles of their infantry were centered on us alone. At every step fell our men, yet no one waves; every gap is closed up, and bringing down their bayonets, the boys press shoulder to shoulder, and disdaining the factitious courage proceeding from noise or excitement, without word or cheer, but with silent desperate determination, step firmly forward. Five color-bearers are shot down, and five times our flag, proudly, goes forward as before.
‘Steady they step down the slope, steadily down the hill.
Steadily load, and steadily fire, and march right onward still.’
“No! unlike the famous veterans of Fonteney, they are unsustained by the excitement of firing. Within a hundred ten of our men already fallen, and yet no shot has been fired at the enemy, whose foremost rank, consisting of Forney’s, Herbert’s, and other regiments of the Alabama brigade, commanded by Wilcox, and portions of Barksdale’s brigade of Mississippians, all of whom had lost their order and alignment, had become mingled in one advancing mass during their fight with and pursuit of the Third Corps. Behind them in alignment came a body of troops, since understood to be a Florida brigade, which had not been actively engaged, but was supporting the victorious advance of their comrades. As soon as our movement was noticed the advancing mass stopped and opened a murderous fire upon us at not more than fifty yards’ distance.
“’Charge, men!’ ran the order along the line, and with a wild cheer we ran at them. Their extended front swept around our flanks like the waters round a rock. But before us they gave way, for we empty our guns with the muzzles at their very hearts, and but little ammunition was wasted at that volley. A perfect swath of men sink upon the ground, and their living recoil back upon their second and third lines, and the body of many a chivalric Southerner lies beneath the feet of our men. Their supporting lines, confused and excited, wildly commence firing through the mass in front, slaughtering their own men by hundreds, and throwing the whole column into confusion, while their artillery from the rear fired on friends and foe alike. Their officers endeavored to stop the firing and restore order, and there, like some small obstacle thrown in the way of a locomotive to stop the power that will grind it to dust, we had momentarily checked the momentum of the mass, which in another moment would recover itself and sweep us from the earth; but the time had been gained, and at that instant a battery on our left opened, and poured a few rapid volleys into the confused mass, swept it from the field; and before we had recovered from the shock we found ourselves among groups of disarmed prisoners, and our bewildered senses take in the fact that the enemy have somehow disappeared from the plain, all but his dead and wounded, and over their prostrate bodies ring the hearty cheers of our reinforcing troops.
“That is the manner and order in which these things happened, as I have been told by those whose position made them lookers-on. For who that was an actor there can give the order or detail the changes of the eventful and exciting moments following that word ‘Charge?’ When we heard neither ball not shell now saw our comrades fall; when the blood rushed like fire through the distended veins and every faculty was absorbed in the one desire to conquer or to die—no, not to die, for though thoughts of the icy King of Terrors may for a minute chill the heart of the bravest when the battle is commencing, and the blood is cold, every fear of that grim dwelling on the threshold of eternity is long since lost in the glorious enthusiasm of action.
“The almost fatal attack was repulsed; but where was the First Minnesota? Had they deserted the field for the first time? That was the first idea that came to my senses, half oblivious of what had passed. But forty-seven men now gathered round the colors. Great heavens, is it possible that the other two hundred five lie bleeding under them? Yes, they are all there within a hundred square yards of crimson sward—two hundred and five killed, wounded, and none missing. Beloved comrades, noble and heroic martyrs, let your countrymen for all time to come place this simple list of figures beside the recorded losses of the vaunted light brigade, or Cambronne’s immortal guard at Waterloo, and the comparison will forever tell the tale of your glory and teach them that not outside the history of the late great war need they go for instances of devoted courage or the highest record of heroic daring.
“It was indeed the Thermopylae of the Regiment. Our colonel, lieutenant colonel, major, and adjutant were all wounded, each mortally, as was the feared, for all were pierced with more than one ball, which was the case with most of the wounded, and some of the corpses were perfectly riddled and few escaped without a scratch. Out of twenty-one line officers but five were fit for duty. The command devolved upon Capt. N. S. Messick, and, as the senior lieutenant, I acted as his adjutant, turned over five men left of my company of thirty-five that morning, thirteen being killed and seventeen wounded, to another lieutenant.”
In the aftermath of Gettysburg, on July 29, 1863 Maginnis was promoted to Captain. The First Minnesota was discharged in May 1864. Four months later, Captain Maginnis joined the new Eleventh Minnesota Infantry to serve as quartermaster as that regiment operated under Maj. General George H. Thomas’s Division in the Army of the Cumberland. One month later he was promoted to Major and served until June 26, 1865, when he was mustered out with the regiment at St. Paul.
In 1866 Maginnis emigrated overland with the Henry B. Steele party from Minnesota to Montana Territory to try his hand at mining. Two years later he became an intensely partisan democratic editor of the Rocky Mountain Gazette newspaper in Helena. A lifelong Democrat in August 1871, Maginnis narrowly defeated incumbent William H. Clagett to become Montana’s non-voting territorial delegate to U. S. Congress where he served for the twelve years. During his congressional years, Delegate Maginnis made an impressive mark convincing Congress to build forts Custer, Keogh, Logan, and Maginnis, opening navigation on the Missouri River, opening reservation land to white settlement, and encouraging railroad building to promote settlement of Montana—all measures designed to increase the territory’s population.
Maginnis was elected to the state constitutional convention in 1889 and defeated for the U.S. Senate that same year in a disputed partisan election. Major Martin Maginnis, who served Minnesota and the nation with distinction in the Civil War and Montana well as Territorial Delegate in Congress, spent the last four years of his life in California and died March 27, 1919 in Los Angeles. He rests today in Resurrection Cemetery in Helena.
Sources: [MNA The Gentana Reporter 12 Nov 1917; MNA The Big Timber Pioneer 26 Jan 1920; Martin Maginnis “At Gettysburg The First Minnesota,” Gettysburg Star & Sentinel 14 Jun 1882; Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, vol. 1, p. 1-78, 488-506; Michael Leeson, History of Montana, 327, 1234; Helen McCann White editor, Ho! For The Gold Fields Northern Overland Wagon Trains of the 1860s, 172, 175-76; Ellis Waldron, An Atlas of Montana Politics Since 1864; “Partial sketch of the civil and military service of Major Martin Maginnis,” Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, vol. 8, p. 7-24; Wikipedia Martin Maginnis and 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.]
1. Captain Martin Maginnis shortly after his First Minnesota Infantry charged Confederate lines at Gettysburg.
2. Map of Second Day at Gettysburg when First Minnesota achieved greatness. [Courtesy of Wikipedia]